Essays: Hail and farewell |
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Hail and farewell

IF BBC1’s coverage of Mountbatten’s funeral procession had confined itself to the pictures and the music, it would have been too magnificent to be borne with equanimity. Luckily there was enough babble from the commentator to give you breathing space.

The same applied inside the Abbey, where only Prince Charles, who read the lesson, had words to match the occasion. The words were from the Old Testament and he read them with a fine ring. The clergy had mostly written their own material. They would have done better to be silent and let the singing do the talking.

Making critical discriminations of that kind, I was able to keep a reasonably dry visage throughout the morning, but it was a near-run thing. The clergy might have forgotten the act of ceremonial pomp, but the military retain an awesome sense of theatre. There was also the consideration that in this case the man being celebrated had done a lot to deserve so much attention.

The BBC also did its best to be fair to the other people who were killed on the same day. At this rate the IRA terrorists will soon convince the world that whatever course Britain should take with regard to Northern Ireland, it should not be the course recommended by them.

The outside broadcast sequences for Miss United Kingdom (BBC1) were shot at Rydal Mount, beautiful lake-side home of poet William Wordsworth. Anchoring from the studio, Paul Burnett explained that ‘Blackpool has been the home of the Miss United Kingdom contest for 22 years,’ but that there was no reason why the assembled lovelies should not pay a flying visit to the ‘one-time home of William Wordsworth.’ Paul has a confident little smile that makes you want to smack him repeatedly over the head with a rolled-up newspaper.

Across the one-time lawn of William Wordsworth dart the Geoffrey Richer dancers, the boys in terrible white suits, the girls in slit gowns the colour of ... daffodils! If Wordsworth could have seen this, he would have been inspired. Probably to violence, but let no sour thought mar the perfection of the moment, for here come the girls down the gravel path, their high heels wobbling and snapping, their brave smiles alternating with frowns of anxiety as they fight for balance. Most of them have chosen quite well-cut little suits, but what have they done to their heads? Is that lump a bun or a wen? What is that thing?

Back at Blackpool, each girl changes into an awful swim-suit cut so high on the hip that her legs look as if they are growing out of her armpits. The strain on the crotch looks enormous, suggesting that the poor darling must soon either split in half or else take off vertically. Paul is ready with some probing questions. ‘She’s an environmental archeologist! My God, what are you doing here?’ ‘I find beauty contests a complete break from environmental archeology.’ ‘She’s right about that, of course.’ By the same token, disco dancing is a complete break from particle physics.

But here comes another candidate for the tin tiara. Moving his lips very slowly, Paul asks here where she went for her holidays. ‘I went with my friend twitterly.’ ‘You went to Italy?’ ‘Yes, I went twitterly and was blessed by the Pope.’ Once again Miss England becomes Miss United Kingdom. Last year’s winner, Ann Jones, gave up the crown with good grace. Considering that her year’s giddy round of excitement had included a meeting with Jim Callaghan, this could not have been easy to do.

The Pirate (BBC1), or ‘Harold Robbins’s “The Pirate”’ to give it its full title, was a two-part imported American no-no seemingly dedicated to proving that no matter how bad the movies get, television can be worse on a smaller budget. Franco Zero — sorry, Franco Nero — played Baydr Al Fay, an Arab tycoon who, all unbeknownst to him, had been born a Jew. Eli Wallach played Baydr’s real father, Ben Ezra. Christopher Lee played Baydr’s not-real father, Samir. The way Ben Ezra’s head is wrapped in a tea-towel tells you that he is a Jew. The different way Samir’s head is wrapped in another tea-towel tells you that he is an Arab.

The switch is worked in a tent during a sandstorm. ‘We’re all travellers on the same sea,’ says Samir. Decades go by and Baydr the changeling grows up to be a fine figure of a man with his own Douglas DC-8. Rut this is no longer a world in which men like Ben Ezra and Samir can acknowledge each other’s humanity. Instead there is bad blood, bad faith and above all bad dialogue. ‘I know that with the will of Allah you will give Baydr many sons.’ So says the old Prince to Jordana, the WASP beauty to whom Baydr is betrothed. ‘It’s only a couple of hours to sunset,’ Baydr informs his beloved. ‘Then we’ll stuff ourselves’

They stuff themselves as often as possible, these two, for theirs is the Harold Robbins world of (as the Radio Times puts it) ‘sex, intrigue and danger.’ I met Harold Robbins once. It was like shaking hands with a factory. He is so far from treating the reality of the subjects he deals with that it is as if he had left them untouched. Why the Beeb did not leave ‘The Pirate’ untouched is a bit of a mystery, but perhaps there was nothing left to spend the money on. Somebody else must have bought the last load of old truck tyres or cured rat-skins.

You loved Peter Egan as Oscar Wilde in ‘Lillie’? Now you can love him all over again as Prinny in Prince Regent (BBC1). As Oscar Wilde, Mr Egan was affected. precious and impetuous. As the Prince Regent, on the other hand, he is impetuous, precious and affected. ‘Build me a conservatory in the Gothic style, Mr Holland!’ His father, King George III (Nigel Davenport plus built-up nose and china teeth), damns his extravagance.

Frustrated in his ambitions, Prinny hits the night-spots. Egged on by Charles James Fox (Keith Barron plus wig), he defies the King at every turn, never hesitating to put the old man’s built-up schnozz out of joint. Lady Effingham is only one of Prinny’s conquests. Effingham by day and night. he has scarcely enough energy left to fall in love with Mrs Fitzherbert (Susannah York plus plumed hat). Besides, she is Catholic. On top of that, and indeed on top of her, there is that hat. It looks as if she is wearing a whole roof garden up there, with a restaurant.

Fox warns Prinny that a Catholic consort is out of the question. ‘What matters that to me?’ Matters it a great deal, because the King is getting madder every day. ‘What? What? What? What? What?’ storms the potty old buffer. But too late, because the Prince and Mrs Fitzherbert, or George and Maria as they call each other lovingly, have already tied the knot. They flee into the night. More next week.

The Observer, 9th September 1979